Call me a curmudgeon, but I tend to run away from books about happiness. There’s something so utterly unhappy about reading about happiness, isn’t there? I mean, if you have to buy a book or an app or hire a life coach to help you to appreciate the joys of life then truly you may never feel the frisson of simple pleasure in your soul.
I made an exception, though, for David Malouf’s unassuming tome with the lofty title of “The Happy Life. The Search for Contentment in the Modern World,” in which he riffs on happiness with conversational erudition. It’s a small book, cozy in the hand and easy to carry about, ready for you to dip in and out of in between your own life’s living. Perhaps because I read it in sips I often felt a bit intoxicated by it, although it was for the most part a pleasant sensation, for he takes his reader on a curious and never-ever dull ride. We visit with Solzhenitsyn’s Shukhov, with Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson, Plato’s Epimetheus and Dostoevsky’s Kirillov. He mentions botox and bulimia and yellow-bellied tree frogs, and all this in a mere ninety pages!
I say pleasant for the most part because there were times when I had to turn once again to the cover image, such a happy one with a whimsical emoticon smile following the title, to make sure I wasn’t reading about hell. In between his mentions of the joy elicited by such lovely things as a baby’s smile, the sensual portraiture of Rubens and Rembrandt, the beautiful symmetry of man and nature, he reminds us of the terror of their opposite, plague and famine, war and loneliness. Along the journey he reminds us how our definitions of happiness have changed, the reasons for our unhappiness multiplied, and how we seek out reasons to be miserable now that most of the causes of past malaise have been eliminated.
Malouf muses that perhaps the sensory overload of modern life produces the endorphin-filled equivalent of a runner’s high, that it could be that “the exercise of the brain, when it is involved in dealing with rapid stimulus and response, as in video games or in the sort of attention we call upon when we are multi-tasking, creates in us a similar rush of well-being, of exhilaration, elation; an awareness of intense personal presence, in a a fast-moving and richly crowded world that we are intensely in tune with, and where a new form of ‘happiness’ may be found.” I would venture than most people under 30 would agree with that, and most over 40 would not, which lends credence to the theory that brains are being rewired and all is not lost despite the fact that the way to nirvana may no longer be the silence of a room of one’s own.
The book doesn’t pretend to offer a panacea for our discontent, in fact I think it proves how complexly personal, how elusive and subjective happiness is. Malouf chooses the example of Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, the fictional character of Solzhenitzyn’s novel, to end the book.
Shukhov is not happy because he has solved the problem of ‘how to live’—the life he lives is too provisional, too makeshift for that. […] What he achieves, briefly, intermittently, is moments of self-fulfillment, something different and more accessible, more democratic, we might call it, than self-containment. But he achieves it only at moments.
He is happy now—who can know what tomorrow or the day after will do to him? He is happy within limits—and this may be a clue to what makes happiness possible for him, or for any of us. […] He takes short views and deals only with the smallest units of time—a few moments, a single day—and a stretch of space whose limits can e measured in paces, a thousand, maybe two.
Measured in paces… something we might also apply to the ephemera of a baby’s smile or a beam of sun emerging from the clouds. Why is it that we have been taught to expect anything else? The yin the yang, the dark the light, without one there is not the other.
Lastly, I’d like to end with Malouf’s words on Shukhov…
Fiction, with its preference for what is small and might elsewhere seem irrelevant: its facility for smuggling us into another skin and allowing us to live a new life there; its painstaking devotion to what without it might go unnoticed and unseen; its respect for contingency, and the unlikely and odd; its willingness to expose itself to moments of low, almost animal being and make them nobly illuminating, can deliver truths we might not otherwise stumble on.
Lordie, that last passage makes me happy. 🙂